As the 2018 international overdose awareness day ended on August 31st – and various recovery celebrations are about to take place all over the world throughout the month of September – something noticeably different has started taking place this year. A new generation of voices have begun to rise-up and assume leadership roles from across the recovery advocacy, mutual aid fellowships, addiction treatment, public health (incl. harm reduction) and various drug policy groups from across the UK, Australia, Canada, and the United-States.
These new voices – scurrying at rapid speeds across new digital mediums – and coming from wide-ranging life experiences, motives, priorities, and professional backgrounds can once again be heard in tandem with the suffering cries of families and friends of lost loved ones to substance use and death by suicide. And once again, as the UK recovery advocate Stephen Bamber wrote back in 2010: “independently and collectively these voices are asking themselves: couldn’t we be doing things better?”
A lot has changed since Stephen Bamber has written those words. For one, the recovery movement as led by vanguards such as William L. White that arose in the late 1990s has come to have a tremendous impact on the national discourse of English-speaking countries—as can be seen from various government mental health and substance use policy strategies.
In Canada, for example, the recovery movement since 2010 grew from a few recovery events in select communities to holding rallies in 12 cities in 2013, and eventually succeeded to influence the Mental Health Commission of Canada (2014), and the Canadian Centre on Substance use and Addiction (2015) to adopt a national priority for recovery-oriented care. These efforts prove to be so successful, in fact, that the Canadian addiction treatment industry took upon itself to perform a searching and moral inventory of its current practices through an annual recovery capital conference and forged a national recovery committee which finally conducted Canada’s first Life in Recovery Survey (2016) following the United-States (2012), Australia (2014), and the United-Kingdom (2015).
Yet as many bureaucrats, addiction treatment professionals, and recovering advocates paraded through the streets to celebrate their recovery or held media events on their sacred slogan “treatment works” – fatal overdoses continued to climb. This reality from the street didn’t go unnoticed by members of the Vancouver Network of Drug Users (1998) and various harm reduction activists which eventually founded the Canadian Drug Policy Coalition (2010).
Composed of 70 organizations, 3000 members – and led by Donald Macpherson – the Canadian Drug Policy Coalition (CDPC) has had a tremendous success on advocating its key policy issues on cannabis legalization, reviving the psychedelics debate, decriminalizing drug possession and taking a harm reduction approach to substance use (i.e. overdose prevention, supervised consumption services, etc.). In fact, the CDCP has been so successful in its approach that cannabis will now be legal as of October 17, 2018 and supervised consumption services have been a primary component of Canada’s response to the current opioid crisis since December 12th, 2016.
Despite all these concerted efforts, Canada since 2011 (like the United-States) has been facing a rising health and drug overdose crisis to epidemic proportions. According to various statistics, drug overdoses in Canada for 2016 surpassed the number of Canadians who died at the height of the HIV epidemic in 1995 and nearly 4000 people died in 2017 – a 34 percent increase or 11 people per day from 2016. And 2018 is currently on pace to be just as bad or worst. Although these figures might pale in comparison to the United-States death toll for 2017 (72000) – adjusted for population, the rate of overdose deaths in British Columbia (B.C.) in 2017 stands at 32 per 100,000 people. If B.C. were a state in America, a fatal-overdose rate of 32 would place it among the top five states for overdose deaths in the country. Again, and as Stephen Bamber wrote in 2010 “independently and collectively, couldn’t we be doing things better?”
As much as the details of history have changed since Stephen Bamber wrote his words, many things remain unchanged. For one, there is still a great dividing chasm between the recovery movement, mutual aid fellowships, addiction treatment professionals, public health advocates (incl. mental health/harm reduction) and various drug policy groups. And sadly, many of their adherents are stuck in a dysfunctional cycle of stagnant, scapegoating and endless polarizing drug policy debates. Or more chillingly, are rushing along to create a scientific ideology of recovery (or harm reduction) to commodify and harvest citizens as raw capital for state exploitation, and insatiable profit for the healthcare, insurance, and pharmaceutical industries.
But as bleak has this picture might be, a growing resistance and intellectual awakening is taking place within various pockets of the addiction recovery and psychiatric survival movement. This new generation of vanguards are capitalizing on new technology and obtaining advance degrees to examine and unpack their own personal experience of survival and recovery. This process has given birth to a new exciting and growing body of literature known as critical drugs and mad studies. Implicit in this growing body of work – as William L. White and Stephen Bamber predicted – is a serious intellectual study of where recovery and health flourishes, or suffocates. What remains to be seen, however, is how this developing postmodern body of work will deal with the recovery movement’s rich history of religious ideas and evolving pragmatic civil-religion as documented by trailblazing figures such as Ernie Kurtz – author of: “Not-God: A History of Alcoholics Anonymous.”
This post was written and published here with the permission of William White. He is one of the leading recovery writers in the United States today. For more article by him go here.
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